Sunshine Week starts March 11!
Every week should be Sunshine Week -- citizens acting to get information about their government's doings -- but once a year in March news organizations make it an official focus. (Just google "Sunshine Week" for more).
Some online news sources are looking hard all year long: ProPublica is one. Last year they started a news feed with links to local muckraking stories.In my neck of the woods, Maryland, there is the FOIA law (called the "Public Information Act" or PIA) and there's the Open Meetings Act, which governs notice of meetings, when governmental bodies can shut the public out, and also the public's access to minutes.
Various loopholes in both laws can make it very hard to obtain minutes. The Maryland Transportation Authority has been particularly recalcitrant going back to late 2009.
It is a nominally independent state agency with an eight-member Board. The Board is subject to the Open Meetings Act, though you wouldn't know it from the public record.
I say "nominally" because over the past decade it looks much more like it functions as the Maryland Department of Transportation and Secretary of Transportation's private money-raising arm than as any sort of truly independent operation.
A $307 Value, Yours Free with the Ginsu Cleaver
In any event, after much battling to be described at a later date, minutes of two "hidden" subcommittees from 2007 through 2009 have come to light. They have never been seen outside the walls of the MDTA's headquarters as far as can be determined.
What makes this secrecy especially annoying is that the period of time covers a $2.5- to $3-billion investment in a toll road, the Inter County Connector; a fatal accident on the Route 301/50 Bay Bridge; selling off port property to a separate state agency, the Maryland Port Authority, so it could enter into a 50-year public-private partnership lease; a precipitous drop in tollroad traffic due to the economy; a large toll increase on MDTA roads and bridges, except the ICC; and the backroom work on another public-private partnership to lease two rest stops on I-95 for 35 years.
According to the MDTA, they wanted $307 for the PDF files. When they were told they could not charge for Capital Committee minutes, they wanted $153 for PDF files of Finance Committee minutes (the excuse was they had to pay someone $60+ an hour to run them through an office scanner).
Thanks to Maryland Delegate Mike Smigiel's intervention, the Finance minutes were turned over at no charge.
On Scribd you can now find, by searching on MDTA, the minutes of its Finance Committee and Capital Committee from 2007 to 2009 (with some gaps because they couldn't find minutes; no further explanation offered). The individual docs open as PDF files.There's a small gap with part of 2010. At the end of 2010 the MDTA began putting its meeting notices and minutes on its website -- something it should have been doing for the preceding dozen years. However, state law does not require posting electronic copies of meeting records, so why should they bother?
So Marylanders now have free and unfettered access to these committee minutes.
The MDTA is in charge of all of Maryland's toll "transportation facilities" for road traffic, and has also acted as the financier for a handful of related projects, like parking garages at the Baltimore Airport.
The Board makes up the stockholders of the Canton Railroad. It owns the railroad 100 percent.
It financed and operates the Inter County Connector, a very short $2.5 to $3 billion toll road between Montgomery and Prince Georges counties in Maryland. (The State Highway Administration actually built the toll road by letting contracts).
It's in charge of all the toll bridges and tunnels and the toll section of I95 in Maryland.
Just Google "MDTA Maryland" for its website.